Harry Potter and Cho Chang: Exotified Asian Women and Invisible Filipinos
by Erin Pangilinan
With the hyped popular author's (J.K. Rowling) Harry Potter #6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, selling close to 9 million copies in the UK and US on the date of release, we must look critically at how Asian Americans fit into the picture of the Hogwarts world by looking at Asian roles in previous Harry Potter books.
Harry's infatuation with Asian female Ravenclaw quidditch player, Cho Chang, began in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter #3) – but was not in its equivalent film. Their romantic relationship ended in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter #5). The upcoming release of the film this year, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, debuts Scottish Asian actress, Katie Leung, playing the role of Cho Chang.
So far, Asian Americans are paying attention.
“Jealous” online teens write in forums and blogs, while popular Asian American watchdog websites like “Angry Asian Man” also take heed to this issue. Some Asian American teens write that Leung is ugly, while White nationalist websites are angry that Harry Potter is kissing an Asian, though this is what is actually written in Harry Potter #5.
Chang rarely speaks throughout the entire book series so far (until she is in a relationship with Harry Potter). She is always described as pretty and popular. One may ask if Rowling attempted to be politically correct by choosing an Asian as a love interest or pose the argument of Cho Chang being an Asian girl saved by her “white knight,” as she cries over the death of her old boyfriend, Cedric Diggory for a large part of Harry Potter #5.
According to Wikipedia, the last name, Cho, has no meaning in Chinese, and is closely related to Chou, which has negative definitions (i.e. “Stink,” “Slap,” “Worry,” “Thick,” and “Ugly”); we know that Rowling still didn't get it right. UC Berkeley Chinese American student, Zechariah Feng puts in an objective view. He says, “Everyone seems to be looking too much into it. It's not exactly possible to tell what Cho Chang means because we don't have the stresses (accents) to help us determine what words they are, and of course in the traditional Chinese sense a name always has some kind of meaning as technically so do names in English.” “Cho Chang” also means “elephant” in Thai. Asian Americans are outraged by the stereotypical use of the -Ch at the beginning of last names.
Korean Japanese-pop singer, BoA and Filipino singer, Heart Evangelista were also rumored to play the role in the film. Online petitions were circulated to support BoA as Cho Chang and online discussions for Heart Evangelista. Initially, this sparks interest of the differences between Asian American and Asian for the American audience, which they always confuse. But this is not the only problem Asian Americans face with identity politics and accurate representation in the media.
The argument circles back to the political and cultural identity of Asian American, Pacific Islander, Asian Pacific Islander American, Filipino American and countless other acronyms with each of their own distinctions. For East Asian Americans, it has always been very easy to pinpoint a sketchy portrayal of a light-skinned “Oriental” character who is distinctly East Asian and exotified; this is very much different for the Westernized Filipinos and Filipino Americans. UC Davis Filipino American student, Anthony Tadina does not find this surprising at all; he says, “Rowling based her on what she views Asian girls as - light skinned, skinny, smart ... the stereotype. If you think about it, when you describe someone who is White, what do you say?”
Filipinos and Filipino Americans need to understand East Asian stereotypes and apply them to their own. How often do people criticize roles of Filipino American actresses (who are very rare) in the mainstream media?
East Asians automatically see a “token Asian” on a television show as a doctor, scientist of some sort, pointing towards the model minority, if not a character doing some sort of domestic work. We are often cast aside with minor roles, supporting actors, or extras—nothing in the forefront for the mainstream cinema. Tadina agrees, “How many other Asian American males are the leading role in files (besides star of “Better Luck Tomorrow and “Harold and Kumar,” John Cho)?” What other Filipino American actors and actresses are present (besides comedian Rob Schneider, supermodels like Tia Careera, supporting actors/actresses like Lalaine Ann Vergara-Paras (Disney show, “Lizzy Macguire,”as the best friend) in American film? It is not uncommon to find actors and actresses indicate they are of Filipino descent, are of mixed descent, porn stars, American idol singers, Real World contestants, martial arts stunt doubles, and Filipino actors in the Philippines. Of course, there are the notable community films like “The Debut,” “Lumpia,” “The Flipside,” “Lolo's Child,” “ Disoriented ” and a list of many attempts to bring the Filipino American to mainstream America cinema. How much of America actually knows more than just the martial artist, beauty queen, and model minority roles in films…other than East Asian stereotypes--or is that all we are because that is all we know?
Do we look at the roles of girls (who dance Tahitian) inaccurately represented and stereotyped as “hula girls” in the films and cause an uproar in our community? Maybe in Hawaii. People can argue that the hula girl is good for Hawaii and its tourism. Everyone always likes a pretty face. Sex sells. Not to insult something so integral to Hawaiian culture, but when things are commoditized and influence the general public of the Asian American/Pacific Islander image, they're up for debate.
What are Filipino American stereotypes that we should watch for in the media if they are there at all? The savage, primitive brown islander from the Pacific? Or the exotic hula dancer? Most will just go along with the idea that the girl or woman is “pretty, beautiful, ugly,” and are either proud or angry that the person is representing them as that without necessarily looking at the facts.
The same frustration has been expressed by some Asian Americans who often criticized their representations in film in a long list of movies ranging from the old film “Drum Flower Song” to recent druggie comedy, “Harold and Kumar.” “Where are all the Filipino Americans?” I ask myself. Asian American “model minority meets Columbine” MTV film and Sundance Film Festival winner, “Better Luck Tomorrow” was co-written by a FilAm that had the leading role as a FilAm, but was cast as a Chinese American. The target audience was Asian American, and not distinctly Filipino American, much unlike “The Debut.” If we are the second largest among the Asian American population, where are we in the media? Yes, the Philippines has a smaller population compared to China. The exotification of Chinese and Japanese culture in films with martial arts does not go unnoticed. But it is very rare to see Filipino Americans on screen, if at all, in positive roles. Are we only represented by the modern depictions of the buck-toothed-tone-deaf William Hung? Are we the geisha girls like Lucy Liu? Are we the distorted image of Disney's “Mulan?” Aren't we something more?
If it is easy to cast Cho Chang as an East Asian stereotype, then what image or depiction is subject to label a Filipino stereotype?
Will Cho Chang be portrayed stereotypically in the film as in the book? And if she is a negative image, what does this do for Asian Americans or Filipino Americans in the media? It worsens the likelihood of success for us when people only want to see us as a stereotype.
Erin Pangilinan is a writer for Philippine News, A-Zine, Bamboo Girl, and Maganda Magazine. Her current novel-in-progress seeks to express socioeconomic values influencing cultural and political identity in the gap between Asian/Pacific Islander or Filipino immigrants and 2nd generation Asian/Pacific Islander or Filipino Americans. Once her people's stories are told through APIA/FilAm literature and film from a FilipinA-American perspective, (mixing her influences of Spike Lee and Amy Tan), she can rest.